Gentlemen, draw decades and come out fighting! Shutter Island marks the fourth collaboration of Leonardo DiCaprio with Martin Scorsese over the past eight years, which inspires inevitable comparisons with the first four films that Scorsese made with Robert DeNiro from 1973 to 1980. But DiCaprio himself is smart enough to realize that there's no real comparison, telling Moviefone: "That to me is the greatest cinema duo of all time, so I wouldn't dare even have that conversation."
Of course, I am not Leo, and so I dare to start the conversation. DeNiro and Scorsese were contemporaries, growing up not far from each other in Greenwich Village in the 1940s and 50s. The films on which they worked together defined them as actor and filmmaker, as well as influencing an entire generation. DiCaprio's post-Titanic star power has helped Scorsese get dream projects made and enabled the director to dabble magnificently in studio genre films. Scorsese's deft touch has drawn superb, wide-ranging performances from a man young enough to be his son.
Gangs of New York (2002) vs. Mean Streets (1973)
In both films, the putative star was outshone by an actor in a supporting role. As Bill the Butcher, Daniel Day-Lewis dwarfed a sometimes uncertain DiCaprio (age 28) in the rocky epic, while, essaying the wild Johnny Boy, DeNiro (age 30) stole the show from Harvey Keitel. It's not that DiCaprio and Keitel weren't good, it's that Bill and Johnny were the most dynamic characters. Mean Streets sings; Gangs whistles when it works.
The Aviator (2004) vs. Taxi Driver (1976)
While the 19th century Manhattan milieu of Gangs could be looked at as an antecedent of the 20th century Mean Streets, it's the leading characters of these two films that invite comparisons. Howard Hughes and Travis Bickle provide a fascinating call-and-response between two men facing down their mental demons, mere decades apart. DiCaprio works hard, but the seams are showing; DeNiro simply becomes one of the most believably chilling characters in cinema history. Like his star, Scorsese strains mightily to bring The Aviator to life, but his stylistic flourishes were much more fitting in Taxi Driver. In the latter film, Scorsese is riffing on an amazing script by Paul Schrader, and the cast brings it all to life.
The Departed (2006) vs. New York, New York (1977)
Score one for Leo! DeNiro never quite found his way into saxophone player Jimmy Doyle and the chemistry with Liza Minnelli was awkward at best. Scorsese couldn't turn his love for musicals into something he could call his own. Nearly three decades later, he made a crime film that more resembled a pastiche than a wholly original creation: enjoyable but derivative and ultimately too faithful to a too-pat script. Within the loose-limbed performance structure, however, in which Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg ran wildly into caricature territory, DiCaprio stood out for his steely resolve and haunted determination.
Shutter Island (2010) vs. Raging Bull (1980)
No question that DeNiro gives a performance for the ages in Scorsese's masterpiece, sending it soaring into the stratosphere in its portrayal of a boxer searching for redemption -- most of the time, not knowing what he's looking for. DiCaprio is searching for something in Shutter too, and, within the limitations of a lesser picture, expands the possibilities without resorting to tics or mannerisms. In its own way, it's quite something to see, and entirely satisfying. It's his most fully realized performance with Scorsese, making the most of the material.
DeNiro and Scorsese went on to make The King of Comedy (1982), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), and Casino (1995). They also shared a giggle or two as voices for Shark Tale. We know they've brought out the best in each other. Scorsese has brought out the best in DiCaprio, while the converse is not yet true.
Who would you rather see together again as star and director: DiCaprio and Scorsese or DeNiro and Scorsese?